Drinking patrons darted in and out of The Dollar BOX Showroom on Friday night, cutting streaks through the artificial fog that spouted from the stage. A projected sign reading “MISSISSIPPI IS A RIGHT TO TWERK STATE” bathed the crowd in blue and red. When the opening DJ’s set came to a close, the air grew tense. A procession of dancers stalked onto the stage with confidence.
Then came Big Freedia, sporting a black robe that seemed to wave off the pressurized atmosphere as it fell away at the start of the first number.
Two weeks before Big Freedia’s initially scheduled February performance, The Dollar BOX Showroom owner Ben Shemper received a phone call from Mississippi’s Alcohol Beverage Control board. The ABC said Big Freedia’s performance would be too sexually inappropriate to go on, according to The Times-Picayune.
“So [the ABC] expressed if there was gyrating at the show, it could be shut down,” said Big Freedia’s co-manager Reid Martin. “What we wound up doing is going up the ladder, if you will, and asked to speak with the ABC’s legal team and enforcement team. This is free speech. The way we read the law was that we were not in violation of anything.”
The ABC law prohibits “activities that include live entertainment or conduct which is lewd, immoral or offensive to public decency, including any live act or performance which appeals primarily to sexually oriented.” The law bans mud wrestling, bikini contests, beastiality, masturbatory activity and strippers– none of which Big Freedia and her dancers qualify as, according to Reid.
Reid said Big Freedia’s attorney spoke on the phone with the ABC’s chief of enforcement and deemed that twerking could not constitute lewd behavior.
“I guess they had seen some things on YouTube that would be deemed a violation,” Reid said. “We wouldn’t violate [the regulations]. We’ve played in Mississippi so many times. Our last show before this was the Mississippi Gulf Coast Coliseum. I’d like to chalk it up to misunderstanding.”
Reid said eventually the ABC and Big Freedia’s team came to an accord, and the show was rescheduled.
And Big Freedia returned with a vengeance.
“We had to stand up for ourselves,” Reid said. “I was shocked and in disbelief. When I heard it, I really didn’t think it was true. In my career in managing artists, it’s certainly the strangest thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Reid said Big Freedia made a statement by coming back to Hattiesburg to perform.
“It is expression, it is speech and it is an art form,” Reid said. “There’s no question about it. What those dancers do is incredible. It was definitely a statement.”
Big Freedia’s statement in coming back to perform resonated with the Showroom crowd.
Amanda Kleinhans, a senior sculpture major at USM, said Freedia “brought it” like she always does.
“Closing out senior year, who else would you want to see other than Big Freedia,” Kleinhans said. “My professor told me about the show being cancelled. I think the whole lewd acts thing is ridiculous in such a progressive time. I think it’s partly censorship and, obviously as an artist, I don’t believe in censorship.”
Donald Thibodeaux, a dancer who tours and performs with Big Freedia, said he was glad the show was rescheduled because the performance was worth the time and energy.
“The crowd loved us,” Thibodeaux said. “We left our hearts and our sweat on the stage. We grind every day. It’s our craft. Everybody has an art. Everybody perfects an art.”
Thibodeaux said from day one he felt Freedia’s hospitality. His experiences with the Big Freedia team have been very positive.
“At the end of the day, she’s still a person,” Thibodeaux said. “I treat her like she’s my mother.”
The music TV channel Fuse appeared at the show and helped Freedia film footage for an upcoming music video and her reality show.
Following her performance, Freedia hurriedly left to attend a New Orleans birthday bash. When asked for comment, she politely declined.
Now, with no opposition from regulation officers, Mississippi is now a “right-to-twerk” state.